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The people and stories behind Meiji Era’s (1867-1926) architecture

Facade of the State Guest House (Akasaka Palace)

Facade of the State Guest House (Akasaka Palace). Built in 1909, it is one of the biggest buildings constructed during the Meiji period. Photo: Heritage of Japan

Behind every building there is a backstory of the people for whom and the purpose for which it was built. There is also the story of pioneers at the dawn of Western-style architecture in Japan. The buildings of the Meiji Era tell of a bygone era, of the incredible innovations of Industrial Revolution introduced from Europe into Japan, of the local events and developments that paralleled those in the West. Take a walk back in time to explore some of those stories.

Factories are iconic symbols of the Industrial Revolution era. During the 19th century, the worldwide demand for cloth had grown so much that merchants and nations competed fiercely to meet the supply of textiles for making clothing. Textile mills and factories, beginning with England, installed new machines to increase productivity and to cut the costs of labour.

Tomioka Silk Mill

Tomioka Silk Mill is Japan’s oldest silk-reeling factory. Established in 1972 to mass-produce and export high-quality silk

Tomioka Silk Mill, UNESCO site

Tomioka Silk Mill, UNESCO World Heritage site (Source)

Inside: 300 machines imported from France

Inside Tomioka Silk Mill: 300 machines imported from France (Source)

Ukiyoe print of the Tomioka Mill at work

Ukiyoe print of the Tomioka Mill and workers at work (Source)

The Meiji oligarchy wanted the fruits of Western progress, so they sent learning missions abroad to absorb as much of the western technological innovations as possible. One such mission, led by Iwakura, Kido, and Okubo and containing forty-eight members in total, spent two years (1871-73) touring the United States and Europe, studying government institutions, courts, prison systems, schools, the import-export business, factories, shipyards, glass plants, mines, and other enterprises. [Source: Library of Congress]

The government reorganized itself and also formed a professional corps of diplomats. Consequently, many Western-style buildings were built to receive foreign experts and carry out the reforms. Many of the Meiji era buildings were designed by Dr. Katayama Tokuma, who is regarded as the father of modern architecture in Japan. Katayama studied for in many years in the UK, France and Germany and under British architect Josiah Conder.

Aerial view of the Akasaka palace

Aerial view of the Akasaka palace. Photo: Cabinet Office

Among the more extravagant projects undertaken was the Akasaka Palace (see photo above). Styled in part after the New Palace in Vienna, Buckingham Palace and the Louvre, its basic design was based on the Versailles Palace and it remains the only neo-Baroque European style palace in Japan.

Built of stone aroundd a steel frame, the palace building is both fire-resistant and earthquake-proof

Built of stone aroundd a steel frame, the palace building is both fire-resistant and earthquake-proof Photo: Heritage of Japan

Building began in 1899 and was completed in 1909, under the overall direction of Dr. Katayama Tokuyama who was an architect who studied under British architect Josiah Conders, who advised the Japanese government on many projects. The interiors lavishly decorated with imported French mosaics, fireplaces, furniture and chandeliers, and Italian rose and white marble in the early 19th c. Empire style during the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, Akasaka Palace is, like its Western counterparts, a stately and enduring monument of great beauty. Take a virtual tour of the palace here.

Akasaka (Togu) Palace designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1899, now functions as the State Guest House

Akasaka (Togu) Palace designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1899, was built for the Crown Prince and his bride. Little used as it was deemed expensive, costly to run, instead it was used to house some government departments and the Diet Library. Recently refurbished, it now functions as the State Guest House. The garden fountain seen here features four griffin statues. (Photo credit: Heritage of Japan)

Inside: Stunning and sumptuous staterooms like this ballroom

Inside are many stunning and sumptuous staterooms like this ballroom. The palace fuses Japanese motifs such as samurai armour and helmets,  Japanese drums, phoenix with western flying horses, goddesses and sphinxes in the gilded stucco reliefs.

As part of the “Japanese spirit, Western knowledge” effort, Japanese began wearing European-style army uniforms, morning coats, top hats and ball gowns. Members of the Imperial court adopted European European titles and rococo, neo-baroque, neo-classical buildings were established and concerts of classical music were being performed.


In its efforts to modernize and in adopting the cultures and systems of the West, Japan needed experts to design Western-style buildings. Josiah Conder(see photo above left. Photo: Wikimedia Commons), an architect was invited from Britain to fill the role as adviser to the Meiji government. One of Conder’s notable projects include the former Iwasaki Family House and Kyu-Iwasaki-tei Garden at Taito-ku Tokyo Japan, designed in 1896(see photo below, photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Conder taught the history and structures of Western architecture to Japanese students. His very first class of graduates included Katayama Tokuma(see photo above right, credit: Wikimedia Commons), the man who became court architect (who built the Crown Prince’s Akasaka Palace – see photos above) and who designed the Hyokeikan (see photo below).

Hyokeikan designed by Katayama (student of Josiah Conder), now part of Tokyo Ueno Museum

Hyokeikan, designed by Katayama Tokuma (student of Josiah Conder) and completed in 1908, it now part of Tokyo Ueno Museum (Source: Hyokeikan website)

The Hyokeikan has a magnificent vault dome in its entranceway

The Hyokeikan has a magnificent vault dome in its entranceway (Source: Hyokeikan website)

The word Diet derives from Latin and was a common name for an assembly in medieval Germany. The Meiji constitution was largely based on the form of constitutional monarchy found in nineteenth century Prussia and the new Diet was modeled partly on the German Reichstag.

19th century Japanese Parliament

In keeping with Japan’s modernization and westernization drive, German architects Wilhelm Böckmann and Hermann Ende invited to Tokyo in 1886 and 1887, respectively, drew up two plans for a Diet building which were similar to other Western legislatures of the era. Böckmann’s initial plan, for example, was a masonry structure with a dome and flanking wings, which would form the core of a large “government ring” south of the Imperial Palace. However, due to public resistance in Japan to Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru‘s internationalist policies, the first two parliament buildings were built to a more “Japanese” design, with traditional Japanese architectural features.


Japanese Diet Hall Design by Fukuzo Watanabe (Photo: In the public domain)

Prime Minister Katsura Tarō chaired the commission, which recommended that the new building emulate an Italian Renaissance architectural style. This too received much opposition, so after a public design competition in 1918, and 118 design submissions, the current Diet building was built based on the design by the first prize winner, Watanabe Fukuzo, who produced a design similar to Ende and Böckmann’s.

Ende and Böckmann’s Diet Building was never built, but their other “government ring” designs were used for the Tokyo District Court and Ministry of Justice buildings. Returning diplomatic and study missions from the west also called for domestic reforms that were carried out. Between 1871 and 1873, a series of land and tax laws were enacted as the basis for modern fiscal policy. Private ownership was legalized, deeds were issued, and lands were assessed at fair market value with taxes paid in cash rather than in kind as in pre-Meiji days and at slightly lower rates. [Source: Library of Congress *;]

Ministry of Justice's former Administration Building, designed by Herman Ende, Wilhelm Bockman in 1895

Ministry of Justice’s former Administration Building, designed by Herman Ende, Wilhelm Bockman in 1895 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

From the onset, the Meiji rulers embraced the concept of a market economy and adopted British and North American forms of free enterprise capitalism. The private sector– in a nation blessed with an abundance of aggressive entrepreneurs– welcomed such change.

Economic reforms included a unified modern currency based on the yen, banking, commercial and tax laws, stock exchanges, and a communications network. Establishment of a modern institutional framework conducive to an advanced capitalist economy took time but was completed by the 1890s. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Yokohama Specie Bank

Yokohama Specie Bank, 1880, which became the Bank of Tokyo’s Yokohama branch, now the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of History and Culture (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As in the West, trade and the industrial revolution in Japan created a demand for a host of banking and financial services. Stocks were traded vigorously, new instruments for market speculation evolved on the back of capitalism. New buildings were erected to facilitate and conduct these financial and banking activities. Education and school institutions had to be reformed as well. Germany was the primary model for educational reform. German language and literature were taught and Western-styles schools for the elite were built.

Tokyo University built in the Uchida Gothic style

Tokyo University built in the Uchida Gothic style  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Educational institutions and western-style university buildings such as Tokyo University (above and below) and Meiji University were established in keeping with the necessary educational reforms.

Tokyo University

Tokyo University  Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Meiji University, Faculty of Law 1881

Meiji University, Faculty of Law 1881 Photo: Meiji University

A number of Western-style brick buildings of the Meiji era have been designated as an important cultural assets and turned into museums, such as the Kyoto National Museum. Other examples may be seen below:

Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art, built by Hisashi Tamura in 1910.

Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art, built by Hisashi Tamura in 1910. Designed as “The former Headquarters of the Imperial Guards.” (Photo: Craft Gallery of the National Museum of Modern Art)

Kyoto National Museum designed by Katayama Tokuma

Kyoto National Museum designed by Katayama Tokuma in 1895, and built to house art treasures donated by the Imperial Household Ministry as well as those owned by temples and shrines (Photo: Kyoto National Museum)

Ryounkaku (a.k.a. Asakusa Twelve Storeys), built in 1890, was Japan’s first western-style “skyscraper”, and the first to install an elevator. At 52 meters with 12 storeys, it was the tallest building in Tokyo. The building contained 46 stores selling goods from across the globe.

Ryounkaku (Asakusa Twelve Stories), the first Skyscraper

Ryounkaku (Asakusa Twelve Stories), 1890. (Photo: Heritage of Japan)

Japan had witnessed the improvements in transportation, communications, trade and banking made in the West, where the Industrial Revolution had taken place in the late 1700s beginning in Britain and lasting through till around 1840. Japan wanted to resist the power and hegemony of the West by emulating the West. The Japanese sought Western technology and modernized essentially to level the playing field so they would not be colonized or taken advantage of by the West.   Under the nationalistic slogan “rich country, strong military,” the Japanese government was intent on learning the secrets of the West and Western experts were brought to Japan and Japanese experts were sent abroad to learn everything they could. The government’s top-down modernization policy dictated the goal of “more production through new industry” so that giant government-operated factories for the military, such as the Koishikawa arsenal factory,  were built. The rapid development of industries in Tokyo, besides giving rise to urban problems such as noise and pollution from the smoke emissions from factory chimneys, as well as the formation of labour unions and social unrest with workers protesting their long hours, low wages and sweatshop conditions. Ultimately, that tenacious onslaught and monentum of industrial development both supported as well propelled Japan headlong into two wars: the Sino-Japanese War(1894-1895)  and the Russo-Japanese War(1904-1905).

Koishikawa Arsenal Factory

Koishikawa Arsenal Factory  (Photo credit: Edo-Tokyo Museum; Heritage of Japan)


In 2015, “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Iron and Steel, Shipbuilding and Coal Mining” mainly located in the southwest of Japan were designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The development of the iron and steel industry, shipbuilding and coal mining underpinned the rapid industrialization of the country from the middle of the 19th century to the early 20th century. To showcase the nation’s achievements, the country’s first National Industrial Exhibition was held on August 21, 1877 (bottom right photo: color print depicting the Opening ceremony to the first National Industrial Exhibition. Credit: National Diet Library). The national event (inspired by the 1873 Vienna International Expo) emphasized its aspect as an industrial promotion opportunity providing a meeting place for Western technologies and their Japanese counterparts, for conducting product survey and industry promotion.


Colour prints of the first National Industrial Exhibition (Photo credit: National Diet Library)

The approximately 100,000 m2 venue contained the Fine Art Building (top left photo, photo: National Diet Library), the Agricultural Production Building, the Machinery Building, the Horticultural Building, and the Animal Building. An approximately 10 m high American-style windmill (for pumping up groundwater) was constructed at the park entrance. All the exhibits collected from across Japan were categorized roughly into six groups (mining and metallurgy, manufactures, fine art, machinery, agriculture, and horticulture). They were judged based on the criteria of materials, manufacturing methods, quality, adjustment, effectiveness, value and price. Medals, certificates of merit and other honors were bestowed on excellent exhibits

Redbrick warehouses (similar to those that proliferated in Manchester during U.K’s Industrial Revolution), were constructed along with expansion of harbour facilities in the late 19th century by the Yokohama city government.  Planned by a Japanese architect and government official, Tsumaki Yorinaka, the redbrick warehouses were erected in 1911 and 1913 to serve as custom houses. When the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake struck Yokohama, the Akarenga red brick buildings suffered less damage than other buildings due to their reinforced structure with iron implanted between the bricks.

Akarenga redbrick warehouses in Yokohama were completed in the period straddling the Meiji and Taisho periods

Akarenga redbrick warehouses in Yokohama were completed in the period straddling the Meiji and Taisho periods  (Source: Free domain)

Other than buildings, notable Meiji era structures included warehouses(see photo above), lighthouses and aqueducts/bridges, an early example of which is the Suirokaku Aqueduct along the Biwakososui River in Kyoto.

Suirokaku Aqueduct, Biwasosui River, Kyoto, 1890

Suirokaku Aqueduct, Biwasosui River, Kyoto, built in 1890. Tanabe Saburo was only 22 years old when he designed and built the aqueduct.

Eight lighthouses were built according to western specifications during the Meiji era. The lighthouse seen in the photo below is one of eight built during the Meiji period.

Oldest Western-style lighthouse, in Shinagawa, Tokyo Bay waterfront, built by French engineer Francois L. Verny in 1870. The lighthouse is one of eight built during the Meiji period (photo credit: Flicker Creative Commons, Daniel Rubio)

Oldest Western-style lighthouse, in Shinagawa, Tokyo Bay waterfront, built by French engineer Francois L. Verny in 1870. (photo credit: Flicker Creative Commons, Daniel Rubio)


Hoabinhian sites in Asia and relict DNA

The oldest Hoabinhian site has recently been discovered in Yunnan, China. What implications does this have for the peopling of East Asia?

It has been loosely pointed out that Hoabinhian artefacts have been found in Japan (roughly corresponding to the Jomon), source: Uncovering Southeast Asia’s Past (see Chapter 33) Sandra Bowdler’s map of distribution of H. artefacts in Asia refers.

Wilhelm G. Solheim in his Archaeology and Culture in Southeast Asia: Unraveling the Nusantao cites as evidence the observations of Gerard J. Groot and P. van Stein Callenfels which find early Jomon axes (especially the finds of Kozanji shell mound) to correspond perfectly to Bacsonian axes, including polished stone tools. ‘It is now considered that the “Hoabinhian and Bacsonian are two parallel developments of the same culture”.’

Read the new May 2016 paper detailing the latest find of the earliest Hoanbinhian artifacts in Yunnan (below.)

Xueping Ji, The oldest Hoabinhian technocomplex in Asia (43.5 ka) at Xiaodong rockshelter, Yunnan Province, southwest China Quaternary International, Vol 200 2 May 2016, Pages 166–174


The Hoabinhian is the most representative technocomplex in Southeast Asian prehistory for the later hunter–gatherer period. As a mainland technology based exclusively on seasonal tropical environments, this core-tool culture was previously defined in northern Vietnam in 1932 and characterized originally by its large, flat and long, largely unifacial cobble tools associated with tropical forest fauna. The recent discoveries and dates obtained at Xiaodong rockshelter in Yunnan Province (southwest China) allow us to discuss the origin and the homeland of this singular Asian technocomplex which spread to Southeast Asia during the end of the Late Upper Pleistocene. Here we present the first Chinese Hoabinhian lithic implements in their stratigraphic and chronological context within a rockshelter site, and we address the question of the dispersal of modern humans from South China to Southeast Asia

There are theories that Hoabinhian tool makers were mtDNA R9 or basal mtDNA N descendants (source). Nothing is really conclusive unless ancient DNA can be found confirming the identity of the Hoabinhian tool makers. characterizes the Hoabinhian culture as follows:

The Hoabinhian Period is the name given to that part of Southeast Asian prehistory from about 13,000 to 3000 BC. Archaeological evidence at sites such as Spirit Cave (Thailand) and Cai Beo(Vietnam) reveal that people lived in caves, at open air sites, or along coastal locations as hunter-gatherers and fishers. Coastal Hoabinhian sites often have large shell middens. Animal bones recovered from Hoabinhian sites include primarily wild pigs and deer. Plant remains from Spirit Cave have included almond, bamboo, and gourd. No evidence for domesticated millet or rice has been found at Hoabinhian sites to date.

Hoabinhian stone tools were made from pebbles, and include ground stone axes, grindstones and a dominant stone flake industry. Bone points and spatulas carved from animal bone are also known. In the later Hoabinhian period (argued to be about 5000 BC) sites are also found with potsherds, impressed with vines, mats, or cords.

Hoabinhian burials are generally flexed or contracted; they are often covered with hematite, a common trait of hunter-gatherers just about everywhere.

In Ancient Southeast Asia, John Norman Miksic and Goh Geok Yian write

The oldest Hoabinhian artifacts have been dated to the Pleistocene well before the domestication of plants and animals, or horticulture, is believed to have emerged: at Tham Lod (dates 32,400 – 12.100 BP uncalibrated) and Tham Khuong in Vietnam (20,000-28,000 BP, uncalibrated) 

Hoabinhian Archaeological Sites

Tögi Ndrawa (Sumatra), Spirit Cave and Banyan Valley Cave(Thailand), Cai Beo (Vietnam), Tam Hang (Laos.


Archaeologists discover oldest Hoabinhian site ever in China

by Matt Atherton, Dec 30, 2015

The oldest site of south-east Asian hunter-gatherer culture has been discovered in China. The site, dating back nearly 44,000 years ago, was found in the Yunnan Province at Xiaodong Rockshelter, south-west China, and is the oldest evidence of ‘Hoabinhian culture’ ever discovered.

Hoabinhian culture describes the life of hunter-gatherers in south-east Asia, and was originally believed to be a time period stretching back as far as 29,000 years ago. The new discovery, made by scientists all over the world including China, South Africa and France, suggests that the Hoabinhian age may have begun a lot earlier than thought.

“Xiaodong can be regarded as a typical early Hoabinhian site, the first such site found in China and currently the oldest in Asia as well,” said Ji Xueping, lead author of the study. “The study shows that the Lancang River valley is a possible home for the Hoabinhian culture, and a source of migration for modern humans and the transmission of their culture to south-east Asia.”

Archaeologists researching Hoabinhian sites look for areas with large axe-like tools, used for woodwork in forested areas. Some of these stone artefacts were first collected at the Xiaodong site in 2004.

Since then, further research has been carried out to try and confirm the scientific value of the site. This research was then verified and published in December 2015, in Quaternary International.

Carbon dating was used to verify the date from which the site was occupied. Four metres of vertical soil layer was dated – showing the site was inhabited between 43,500 to 24,000 years ago. The scientists speculated that the very bottom layer may be even older.

The discovery provides further insight into how hominids survived a long time ago. It shows some of their strategies for survival, as well as how – and when – they changed from sporadic settlements to agricultural communities.

Hoabinhian culture was first discovered in Vietnam nearly 100 years ago. Since then, more site discoveries in south-east Asia have been dated back between 29,000 and 5,000 years ago. This is the first of these sites to be found in China. … Read more at IB Times

For a discussion of what DNA might have constituted the oldest arrivals in Southeast Asia, including the Hoabinhian culture, see Hill, Catherine, Phylogeography and Ethnogenesis of Aboriginal Southeast Asians Mol Biol Evol (2006) 23 (12):2480-2491.doi: 10.1093/molbev/msl124:


Studying the genetic history of the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia can provide crucial clues to the peopling of Southeast Asia as a whole. We have analyzed mitochondrial DNA (mtDNAs) control-region and coding-region markers in 447 mtDNAs from the region, including 260 Orang Asli, representative of each of the traditional groupings, the Semang, the Senoi, and the Aboriginal Malays, allowing us to test hypotheses about their origins. All of the Orang Asli groups have undergone high levels of genetic drift, but phylogeographic traces nevertheless remain of the ancestry of their maternal lineages. The Semang have a deep ancestry within the Malay Peninsula, dating to the initial settlement from Africa >50,000 years ago. The Senoi appear to be a composite group, with approximately half of the maternal lineages tracing back to the ancestors of the Semang and about half to Indochina. This is in agreement with the suggestion that they represent the descendants of early Austroasiatic speaking agriculturalists, who brought both their language and their technology to the southern part of the peninsula ∼4,000 years ago and coalesced with the indigenous population. The Aboriginal Malays are more diverse, and although they show some connections with island Southeast Asia, as expected, they also harbor haplogroups that are either novel or rare elsewhere. Contrary to expectations, complete mtDNA genome sequences from one of these, R9b, suggest an ancestry in Indochina around the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, followed by an early-Holocene dispersal through the Malay Peninsula into island Southeast Asia.

mtDNA haplogroups M21 and R21 were suggested as ancentral in the Semang and Senoi, F1a1a a Holocene component from Indochina.


R9b and perhaps N9a are found in high frequency only in Aboriginal Malays … suggest a Pleistocene origin to the north in indochina, wiht an early Holocene dispersal southwards through the Malay Peninsula and into island Southeast Asia.  echoes … the suggestion of Van Heekeren (1072) that the Hoabinhian had originated in South China before spreading to Malaya and North Sumatra.

[What of Austronesian  expansion in the archipelago?]

… on the other hand, haplogroups N21, N22 and M7c1c suggest an equally large offshore component, dating ot the mid/late Holocene, in the ancestry of Aboriginal Malays.

Perhaps the most striking signal is the presence of F1a1a, which aside from the apparently indigenous R21 is the most common haplogroup in the Senoi[R21 diverged from the common haplogroup R ancestor ~60,000 years ago (Macaulay et al. 2005), although the putative control-region link with haplogroup R9 (at np 16304) may imply a younger common ancestor], carried by almost half of the individuals sampled. This haplogroup, which is of early to mid-Holocene age, has b een observed elsewhere at high frequences only in Indochina and probably dispersed there from South China (where it is less frequent but more diverse and where its 1-step ancestor is found) during the Holocene). This suggests that almost half of the maternal lineages of the Senoi may trace back to an origin in Indochina at some point within the last 7,000 years or so.

Gorman, Chester. 1969. Hoabinhian: A Pebble-Tool Complex with Early Plant Associations in Southeast Asia. Science 163(3868):671-673.

Harvick, Ben. 2006. A Methodological Study of Technological Attributes in Hoabinhian Lithic Assemblages. In Social, Cultural and Environmental Dynamics in the Highlands of Pangmapha, Mae Hong Son Province: Integrated Archaeological Research into the Region Rasmi Shoocongdej, ed. Australian National University.

Hoabinhian, Jomon, Yayoi: Early Korean States (Oxbow Monograph) by Gina Lee Barnes

Mineral Food in the late Palaeolithic Hoabinhian Culture of Vietnam and Geophagia in Today Vietnam”, which was presented in the Symposium for Salt Production held in Tokyo Nov 2009, as a part of the paper “Further Studies on Hoabinhian” presented at the IPPA conference, Hanoi, Dec. 2009 and as a paper “Mineral Resources and Salt using in Prehistory Vietnam in comparison [comparation- sic] with Japanese Prehistory

Ancient Japan may have been ‘more cosmopolitan’ than thought: researchers

image, Oct 5, 2016

Ancient Japan may have been far more cosmopolitan than previously thought, archaeologists said Wednesday, pointing to fresh evidence of a Persian official working in the former capital Nara more than 1,000 years ago.
Present-day Iran and Japan were known to have had direct trade links since at least the 7th century, but new testing on a piece of wood—first discovered in the 1960s—suggest broader ties, the researchers said.
Infrared imaging revealed previously unreadable characters on the wood—a standard writing surface in Japan before paper—that named a Persian official living in the country.
The official worked at an academy where government officials were trained, said Akihiro Watanabe, a researcher at the Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties.
The official may have been teaching mathematics, Watanabe added, pointing to ancient Iran’s expertise in the subject.
“Although earlier studies have suggested there were exchanges with Persia as early as the 7th century, this is the first time a person as far away as Persia was known to have worked in Japan (during the period),” he said.
“And this suggests Nara was a cosmopolitan city where foreigners were treated equally.”
Nara was the capital of Japan from around 710 AD to around 784 AD before it was moved to Kyoto and later present-day Tokyo. …
Read more at: